American Made review: A bold take on the US as global citizen

Tom Cruise with Domhnall Gleeson (left) in American Made. Photo: Universal

Tom Cruise with Domhnall Gleeson (left) in American Made. Photo: Universal

FILM

AMERICAN MADE 

(MA) General (114 minutes)

This is an unusual film, and I would love to know how it got financed. Essentially, it's a recap of the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, for the benefit of those who weren't around at the time or, like myself, were too young to take it in.

The story is told obliquely, from the perspective of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), a real-life commercial pilot recruited by the CIA (embodied here by an unsettlingly bland Domhnall Gleeson), to run guns to Nicaragua and thus help overthrow the socialist government, while simultaneously working for a Columbian drug cartel.

To steer us through this wild chain of events, director Doug Liman and writer Gary Spinelli use a now-familiar storytelling mode originating in Martin Scorsese's sprawling historical pageants such as Goodfellas: wallowing in retro pastiche; using surging rock-and-roll standards to convey the thrill of lawbreaking; and throwing eyecatching character actors into the mix such as the ubiquitous Caleb Landry Jones.

Barry's narration, delivered direct to camera, takes the form of a series of clips from a fuzzy home video supposedly filmed in the mid-1980s, laying out the historical background in a dense but jokey fashion (he pretends at one point to confuse two countries) which seems most directly indebted to Adam McKay's The Big Short.

The biggest coup is the casting of Cruise, who functions as a pure icon, recycling all his usual mannerisms - the grin, the hand gestures - and even revisiting his past as a pilot in Top Gun. The catch is that his depthless showboating for once seems intended as anything but likeable.

An overgrown boy in the worst sense, the Barry of the film has no motive beyond making money and impressing his more sensible but hardly more sympathetic wife (Sarah Wright in the kind of role usually cornered by Sienna Miller). Nor is he in possession of a moral compass to inform him that either meddling in another country's politics or smuggling cocaine is anything other than super cool.

The character is all too plausible but, unfortunately, not very interesting. To make a truly gripping film centred on such a nonentity would take a virtuosity which Liman, Spinelli and Cruise collectively aren't able to summon. All the same, as a statement about America's place in the world this is bolder than the vast majority of Hollywood cinema - and the moment when Barry finally fades out of his own narrative is one that would make Scorsese proud.

The story American Made review: A bold take on the US as global citizen first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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